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Editor's Note: This letter is a part of the "Komagata Maru: Pasts, Presents, Futures".
April 2021

A Response to The Tyee About the Taike-sye’yə Mural

By Ali Kazimi
 
 
People standing on the deck of deck of the Komagata Maru

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"This mural depicts oral accounts gathered from Musqueam and South Asian community members of the welcome that Musqueam paddlers who canoed out across the inlet to feed the passengers on the Komagata Maru as they were blocked access to the shore for 62 days."

- Regarding the Taike-sye'yə Mural, Vancouver Mural Festival website, before the site was changed1Statement that used to exist on the Vancouver Mural Festival web page for the mural. The web page was removed, a new URL was created; the new page makes no mention of the above stated history and presents the mural as "a possibility". The statement continues to exist as text at the end of the short film about the mural.


Our motive for writing our piece (True both to history, and solidarity) was to try to counter this "fact" - that Musqueam paddlers canoed out across the inlet to feed the passengers on the Komagata Maru.

I had encountered this "fact" in a PhD dissertation committee in which I was involved in the Summer of 2020 and then again in Bal Dhillion's piece in January 2021 (India's Farmer Movement, Indigenous Land Defenders and Hidden Histories, The Tyee, January 4, 2021).

Continuous Journey - A Film by Ali Kazimi - Poster

This "fact" is becoming embedded via repetition in the media in Canada and in India. A "fact" which continues to be given credibility by the Government of Canada on their website, the only official site which remains unchanged since the mural was unveiled. The Vancouver Mural Festival has changed its site more than once and never acknowledged why such changes were warranted. This lack of transparency on the part of the Festival is troubling.

When we submitted our Opinion piece to The Tyee, they chose not to print it. The editor, via email, explained that they would be conducting their own investigation into our "assertions the events depicted in the mural did not take place"." When I asked what citations were used by Bal Dhillon, the editor chose to move the conversation off email and onto a phone call. During the call, she stated that her fact checking involved an online search, and since all news outlets had reported the story as fact they had "assumed the truth of the story was a given". They claimed that they had become aware of my dissenting piece in The Conversation after they had received our submission.

The Tyee's response confirmed my fears that even credible news outlets had accepted earlier news stories, which in turn had quoted from the news release. This, it seems, is the power of a news release. To its credit, however, The Tyee immediately flagged Bal Dhillon's piece online with an Editor's note: "Some of the facts in this story have been questioned by historians. The Tyee has assigned a reporter to follow up and we will publish a new story with our findings as soon as our reporting has concluded."

The path for seeking the truth behind this "hidden history" is straight forward and simple as the editor says – to determine if there is factual evidence to back up our assertions that "the events depicted in the mural did not take place".

I shared all the information I had with the reporter, who kept in touch seeking information, clarifications and responses as the story research progressed. After several weeks the investigative report went on-line on Feb 23, 2021.

The headline clearly states The Tyee's intent "This Mural Tells a Beautiful Tale of Cultural Solidarity. But Did It Really Happen?" The sub-heading reads: "After a Tyee piece referenced the artwork, the story it depicted was called into question. The result? Sifting through conflicting histories."

The sub-heading reveals The Tyee's conclusion that there are two equally valid "conflicting" accounts. This notion is further underscored by another sub-heading in the report, "Of tangible and intangible histories" and reinforced throughout the piece by sentences like, "So, what happens when a new oral history emerges without documentation?"; "And now, there are conflicting understandings of what it means to respect the legacy of the Komagata Maru."; and "the mural debate highlights questions about how history is recorded, and especially the weight given to oral history and colonial records."

Undesirables: White Canada and the Komagata Maru by Ali Kazimi

Yet buried in the three thousand plus word piece is the central finding: "The Tyee was unable to find anyone to confirm the story of direct Indigenous aid to the passengers of the Komagata Maru — only the Punjabi community account via Singh of paddling vendors in the water. " The Tyee fails to acknowledge that there is not a single scholar or historian who would vouch for the veracity of the account as claimed by the Vancouver Mural Festival.

In the spirit of journalistic balance, The Tyee quotes the curator of the mural and the curator's beliefs and conjecture.

In addition, the curator's reliance on oral accounts passed down from the Komagata Maru's passengers is relied upon, even though the South Asian source, writer and poet, Nadeem Parmar states clearly to the reporter, as he has stated to me, "…there was no mention of whether the Indigenous paddlers offered aid to the passengers."

In The Tyee article of February 23, 2021, the curator can now be seen to equivocate much more than the press releases by the federal government and the City of Vancouver.

In its investigation, The Tyee could not find a single scholar or historian to vouch for this "fact". To provide an opposing view to our expertise, The Tyee instead sought expert commentary on the validity of oral histories and the limitations of the colonial archive.

The "fact" which the Vancouver Mural Festival has promoted has wrongly been framed in the investigative article as a conflict between colonial archives and Indigenous oral histories. That is not the issue. The issue, rather, is reliance about a mural brief which was faulty in stating that something was a "fact" and now that "fact" has been relied upon repeatedly. The repetition itself begins to establish a "truth". This is a problem which the Vancouver Mural Festival needs to own and address in clear terms.

Aspirations for an imagined, speculative history, no matter how much we may wish such events had taken place, need to be clearly marked and clarified as such. Otherwise, "fact" slides down the continuum towards fiction, and there is nothing wrong with fiction, clearly marked as such. Fiction inspires and motivates and can lead to much solidarity building against colonial injustices.

The Tyee's journalistic failing, in my view, is to keep relying on the "one hand" and then "on the other hand" in the guise of balanced journalism. To me, it is sloppy journalism and soon leads to the journalist running out of a leg (or in this case, a hand) to stand upon. This investigation by The Tyee has muddied the waters further, and in doing so it has made The Tyee, inadvertently, complicit with the Vancouver Mural Festival and the Government of Canada in the creation of a false history.

Notes

  1. Statement that used to exist on the Vancouver Mural Festival web page for the mural. The web page was removed, a new URL was created; the new page makes no mention of the above stated history and presents the mural as “a possibility”. The statement continues to exist as text at the end of the short film about the mural.
Ali Kazimi is Associate Professor in the Department of Cinema & Media Arts at York University. His award-winning film Continuous Journey (2004) and his critically acclaimed book Undesirables: White Canada & the Komagata Maru (2011) have played a vital role in bringing this history to light. He is a 2019 recipient of the Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts.
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